David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 years of LGBT music, by Darryl Bullock (Duckworth, £18.99)

Working at Five Leaves, organising lots of events, you get to meet some exciting, inspirational people, last night was a fine example. I’m sure Darryl won’t mind when I say I am referring to those sparkling and sparky young people at his talk on LGBT music. We sold lots of books. The cover price (even reduced to £15 as a promotion on the night) was a struggle for some of them. I offered one teenager my battered proof copy of the book for free, but it was important to him that he bought his own proper new hardback, and got it signed. In the discussion, one young woman remarked that it was the first time she had been in a room – the shop was packed – where people like her were in the overwhelming majority. It made such a change to being the minority, even if an accepted minority. It was a good event.

Of course LGBT people have been involved in music for centuries, but this book identifies “Pretty Baby”, written in 1916, as perhaps the first song written by an openly gay person (the Black musician Tony Jackson) to someone of the same sex. The industry has been awash at times with LGBT people, in Brian Epstein’s day most significant pop acts were managed by gay men though they could not be out publicly. The book charts the ebbs and flows of the creative relationship of LGBT people to music as individuals, but also concentrates on the periods where people could be open and out – the Weimar Republic for example, when “Das Lila Lied” (The Lavender Song) of 1920 was a popular anthem.  One German woman, last night, said that her partner’s choir back home sings that song now. Harlem too was a focus, around the same time where many lesbian or bisexual Black women sang at the underground clubs of Prohibition America.

Being out was sometimes a career-killer. Dusty Springfield, though her career was somewhat on the slide, was dropped everywhere when she came out. Even up to relatively modern times musicians who everybody knew were gay, Marc Almond and Boy George, for example, were told by their record companies to deny they were. That was not the case with The Communards and their Red album included the hit single “There’s more to love than boy meets a girl”. Tom Robinson’s 1976 song “Glad To Be Gay”, however, is in a league of its own as most of the lyrics are angry, political lyrics about police violence towards gay men, raids on gay bars and what we now popularly call homophobia. Hearing it again, now, the song still has the power to shock.

The book is not just a list of LGBT musicians, but the author shows how one period, one musician, could not have happened without  a previous period, a mentor, someone who did something first. And often not for themselves alone. Punk bands, for example, could not find anywhere to play but gay bars were happy to allow them to play. Without  gay bars, said the author last night, punk could not have existed.

I was glad that the author included women from the now partly-forgotten women’s music movement, Chris Williamson and Holly Near for example, who had a big influence on many of my women friends.  Here’s Holly Near from 2004, singing at the million-strong march for a woman’s right to choose in America. It makes me well up: www.youtube.com/watch?v=johabhyURIw

Ross Bradshaw

Copies of David Bowie Made Me Gay are available from Five Leaves Bookshop post free, 0115 8373097

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